Frackonomics: the implications of cheap gas

At 5:30 on Tuesday another crowd settled in to a University of Wisconsin – Madison lecture hall for the final forum to foster public discourse on the state’s booming frac sand industry. This time, it wasn’t about Wisconsin’s sand, or who’s coming in to the state to mine it. This last forum, facilitated by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, focused on what the state’s sand is helping to produce, cheap natural gas, and what that means for future energy consumption and associated climatic impacts.

On the docket was Phil Montgomery, chairperson of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC), Greg Nemet, assistant professor of public affairs and environmental studies at UW-Madison, and Frank Greb, president of Energy Center of Wisconsin. Rather than go speaker-by-speaker, I’ll summarize the most thought-provoking insights of the evening. In contemplating the impact cheap natural gas on U.S. energy here is what these three men had to offer: Continue reading


Frickity frac: what is sand mining’s impact?

At the second of three forums on frac sand mining organized by the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Nelson Institute, four interesting voices stood before another packed lecture hall. There was a representative of sand mining companies, an investigative journalist, a sociologist, and a groundwater specialist.

Each voice added context to the conversation Wisconsin is having as major energy companies move into the state. The Nelson Institute’s first forum two weeks ago, focused on why energy companies have pulled Wisconsin into the hydraulic fracturing industry: the vast amounts of a particular type of sand (frac sand) needed for fracking. This second forum sought to elucidate some of the impacts the state’s new industrial connections may have.

From bottom right, a conveyor carries sand from the crushing area to a wash plant tower to be washed and sorted by grain size at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis., on June 20, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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Why the frack is Wisconsin in the energy game?

Wisconsin is suddenly a player in the national energy game. No, America’s dairyland doesn’t have newly discovered deposits of coal, oil, or natural gas. No, it’s not a leader in wind or solar power. Rather, Wisconsin is a valuable source of….sand. Yes, sand. The specific type of sand needed for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Wisconsin is in the middle of a sand rush because of increased use of the fracking method to extract natural gas. Given the state’s role as a sand supplier, there is a three-part public information series on hydraulic fracturing for Wisconsinites. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is hosting the forums in Madison, they are live-streamed online and archived so that people all over the state and country can tune in.  The first session was this evening and it aimed to help Wisconsinites understand what fracking is and why it’s happening and also to address the role western Wisconsin is suddenly playing in this round of the national energy game.

In a sentence, hydraulic fracturing is a process that breaks up shale deep underground in order to access a trapped, dispersed deposits of natural gas. Sand is key to that process and I am going to discuss how Wisconsin came to claim ownership of most the sand frackers want to use, called frac sand. For more on fracking itself, see the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s short explainer piece, or, for way more than that, check out Propublica’s fracking series.

Wisconsin State Geologist James Robertson stood before a nearly full lecture hall this evening to answer four basic frac sand questions: Continue reading

The ethos of food assistance

Food stamps are now called SNAP and are distributed electronically, not in the booklet form pictured above.

Gina Wilson stretched up on tip-toes to hang her coat on her office door. With a little hop, she managed to secure her coat on the inconveniently high hook and then turned around with a laugh.

“I’ve been meaning to do something about that,” she said. “Or else do my best to grow.”

Gina has worked on hunger issues since ’85 and it’s hard to imagine she’s lost any spunk in those 28 years.

On her office wall hangs a huge map with tiny FoodShare cards and shiny birthday cake confetti strategically ticky-tacked into place to help her keep track of outreach and food collection efforts. The map covers the 16 counties that are Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin’s territory; Gina is their director of agency programs and services. She and Michelle Kramer, Second Harvest’s FoodShare outreach manager, sat down to chat with me about promoting and administering food assistance programs last week.

“There’s a lot of shame about asking for food. Lots and lots of shame attached to it,” Gina said. Continue reading

Championing the world of cheese

A cheese championship placed in the pastoral dairyland of America makes sense. A few short miles from the contest’s urban Madison, Wisconsin location, dairy cows lined up for their second milking of the day. The cows yielded the warm, sweet liquid cultured into the over 2,500 cheese and butter products vying for gold. As a spectator of last night’s championship, dozens of those entries lay before me in bite-sized cubes, beckoning to be tasted and contrasted to their neighbors. I tried 15 cheeses in one blissful hour while I soaked in the remarkable atmosphere of the event. My tasting began appropriately, with a local cheese from Middleton.

1. Carr Valley Airco, a smooth blend of sheep, goat, and cow’s milk finished with applewood smoking. Middleton, WI.

Living up to its world championship title, cheesemakers from 23 countries displayed carefully crafted wheels for appraisal. Wisconsin and other domestic cheeses bordered the room and two long curving tables snaked through the center laden with the international offerings.

2. Landana Red Pesto, a shocking crimson compared to its pale neighbors and carried a full-bodied basil flavor. Netherlands.

Wandering among the among the attendees, my nose alternatively filled with red wine aromas and varied bouquets from our sliced and cubed samples. Though the judges would only assess the previously-determined top 16 cheeses, dozens were out for sampling.

3. BelGioioso Burrata, served on Beglian endive and the epitome of creamy, perhaps simply describable as cream. Green Bay, WI. Continue reading

All for Science and Science for All

This weekend the Wisconsin Science Festival will put Madison on the map as one of many locations bringing people and science together in a fun, interactive and almost abstract way. The agenda includes the science of football, an indigo vat dying demonstration, an insect art exhibit and much more. I recommend browsing the program to understand the true scope of exhibitions that will be present. There is a strong connection to the arts throughout the entire three days of festivities and the whole thing kicks off Thursday night with a ceremony mixing dance, music and scientific performances.

Steering committee member Laura Heisler said that Wisconsin jumped on the science festival bandwagon as they saw growing national and international momentum around the concept. The National Science Foundation (NSF) even funded a support network for event organizers, the Science Festival Alliance. Madison planners visited the Cambridge Science Festival earlier this year to learn from the pros. Continue reading